JACKSON COUNTY, MS (WLOX) - What many Mississippi fire departments need most these days is something your tax dollars can't buy. They need more volunteers.
"The job market is down, so a lot of them have moved, to go elsewhere looking for work," said Fountainbleu Volunteer Fire Department Chief Michael Belton.
As volunteer firefighters decrease in number, the need for them is growing. At Fountainbleu, just three firefighters are paid. Twenty-eight volunteers round out the department.
"In a perfect world, we would have all paid firefighters," Belton said. "But the money's just not there. The economy's bad. Volunteers are really important now."
Mississippi has 13,000 volunteers working in fire departments across the state. Fountainbleu is one of many volunteer fire departments actively recruiting people to join its ranks.
"Everybody can do this," said Edward Flagg, who has volunteered with the department for eight years. "There is a job here for just about anybody. We have people that are secretaries; we have people that are treasurers, and people that help us in many ways. And people that are out there fighting fires. That's just a small portion of what we do around here."
Donning a fire helmet is no small commitment. It takes professional dedication, even for volunteers. Flagg carries his fire-proof jacket with him at all times, and he must be ready to move at a moment's notice. He said since he's become a fireman, his lifestyle has changed.
"The biggest challenge now is getting people to give up their free time," Belton said. "Because even though we're a volunteer fire department, we demand a lot. You even go to school like career firemen do."
The State of Mississippi requires every volunteer firefighter take at least 66 hours of training, and many of them choose to take more than that. They said it might take a lot of work to wear the uniform, but it certainly pays off in the end.
"There's a lot of camaraderie with the firemen," Flagg said. "It's very rewarding when you come in here and put in a big day's worth."
Belton hopes to recruit many more dedicated firefighters to his department, because he said they are critical to public safety in South Mississippi.
"If the tone goes off and nobody shows up, who's going to help?" Belton asked.
If you're interested in volunteering, you can contact individual volunteer fire departments for more information on their requirements. Click here to search for a department near you.